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Across the Former Soviet Union with Russian Police As Guards, Jewish Children Enjoy Summer Camp

July 21, 2004
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It’s summer camp in all its glory: lakeside sing-alongs, bug juice, budding romances and mystery meat for lunch. But something is new here: The setting is Russia and Jewish children are belting out lyrics to Hebrew songs as Israeli flags flap overhead.

Such a scene would have been illegal in the days before communism’s fall, but as the Jewish community here again finds its footing, its children are heading to camp. For many, it’s the first time they’re learning anything about being Jewish.

For 70 years, communism tried to stamp out religion. Now, this three-week summer camp tries to give 550 children — most of them from the St. Petersburg area — a sense of identity and a dose of summertime fun.

The camp, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, is funded by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims as part of the group’s work supporting programs that strengthen Jewish identity. Run by the Jewish Agency for ! Israel, the camp is a pilot project that organizers hope to build on in Moscow and Kiev.

Sveta Martusevich, 14, is one of the campers, who range in age from 7 to 17. Like most of the other campers, she comes from an interfaith Russian home: Her father is not Jewish and her mother is.

Her mother grew up with no Jewish education. Neither did Martusevich, until she started spending summers at camp and attending a Jewish day school in St. Petersburg.

Her face sprinkled lightly with freckles and her hair pulled into a ponytail, Martusevich speaks English as she shows Jennifer Meyerhoff around the camp’s grounds.

Meyerhoff, a member of the United Jewish Communities’ Young Leadership Cabinet from Baltimore, has come along with 160 others as part of a UJC leadership mission surveying the work and needs of the Jewish community of St. Petersburg.

“It’s so nice to be back at camp,” Meyerhoff says, taking her place at a table covered in plastic sheeting in the di! ning hall, an airy room festooned with tinsel and miniature Israeli fl ags.

Each of the visiting UJC leaders partners off with a camper.

Martusevich excitedly rattles off the Hebrew words she has learned and tells Meyerhoff about camp activities: playing basketball and ping-pong, learning Hebrew and Jewish history.

They walk into a large concrete building with peeling white paint and up a flight of stairs. This is where she and others her age stay, Martusevich says proudly.

On the lobby of her floor, streamers hang from the ceiling and a sign in crayon reads, “Hello! Welcome!” in English. Pillows and mattresses are formed into a circle.

“Here we talk about everything,” Martusevich says, referring both to Jewish discussion groups and camp dramas.

Soon a group gathers in the lobby, this time to hear a counselor recount the biblical story of Jacob’s dream. A girl with silver eye shadow and a denim jacket reads a passage of midrash aloud in Russian. Next, they create angel wings from construction paper and magic marker! s.

The trick, says one of the counselors, Ruth Ben-Arie, a 22-year-old from Tel Aviv whose parents immigrated to Israel from Ukraine, is to hook the campers on Jewish heritage through fun activities.

“We try to mix it as much as possible with creativity,” she says, explaining that they don’t want the kids to feel like they’re in school.

The campers make models of the golem out of clay, bake matzah and create alternate endings for the biblical character of Jonah after he is caught in the belly of the whale.

June Finder, director of the Women’s Division of UJC in Chicago, walks hand-in-hand with a camper toward the shores of the Baltic Sea.

“I think giving kids this experience is remarkable. I think it will pay off for us in the future,” she says, referring to the continuity of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.

On the beach, with the silver gray Baltic waves rolling in, a loudspeaker blasts the Israeli popular song “Yom Yavo,” Hebrew for “Th! e Day Will Come.”

Many of those on the UJC mission were activists in the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It’s a moment in history when a community like this, cut off for 70 years from all aspects of Jewish life, can bring 550 kids to the Baltic Sea with Israeli music and Israeli flags to openly hold a summer camp for three weeks in celebration of Jewish life,” says Josh Schwarcz, secretary general of the Jewish Agency, taking in the view from a nearby sand dune.

As the UJC visitors prepare to leave, Meyerhoff pulls Martusevich aside to give her a necklace with a Star of David.

Seeing the camp, Meyerhoff says, gives her hope that “future generations will be here to stay.”

Martusevich beams looking down at her new necklace. Then she giggles with her friends.

JTA correspondent Dina Kraft visited Russia last week on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

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